1. Introduction and thoughts about the subject
2. “For all those who have had enough of the man” – John Singleton’s SHAFT
2.1 The Story
2.2 Background information / Links to black movie traditions
2.3 Aspects that add to the effect of blackness in the film
2.3.2 Urban life and social connections
2.3.3 Crime fighting
3. The perfect crime in a perfect world – Steven Spielberg’s MINORITY REPORT
3.1 The Story
3.2 Background information / Connection to white film traditions
3.3 Aspects that add to the effect of whiteness in the film
3.3.2 Urban life and social connections
3.3.3 Crime fighting
1. Introduction and thoughts about the subject
At least since political and social considerations of black rights movements have found their way into Hollywood movie studios in the 1960ies, blackness in film has always been a central point of cinematographic discussion. Blaxploitation movies, for example, have been critically observed by both white and black film critics and have gained a wide range of differentiated responses. Interesting enough, whiteness in Hollywood film has mostly been disregarded by critics until the late 1990ies. Indeed “There has recently been a recognition of the need to undertake analysis of whiteness without maintaining and intensifying the privileged position assigned to it” (Young, Lola; Fear of the Dark – Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema. New York: Routledge. 1996: 32). The fact that a film has a white director or is mainly starred by white actors seems to be normality in western societies. “White has no categorical status: it is the norm against which everything else is measured with no need of self-definition.” [Dyer, Richard. “White” Screen: The Last Special Issue on Race?. Volume 29, Number 4, Autumn: 44-65. 1988. Quoted in: Young (1996)]. This quote exemplifies the role that whiteness had for a long time within the western cinematic analysis system. With the changing conception of blackness in film and the change in the political discourse of the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, it becomes obvious that whiteness indeed has a need of self-definition and analysis.
When one really takes these points into consideration, it becomes obvious that whiteness in film can have as much effect on the viewer as blackness in film and that it should be analysed just as well in modern film criticism. In this essay I will try to give two examples of each the ‘black’ and the ‘white’ realm of film and I will try to point out in which way the effect that these films have on the reader is influenced by the ethnical group their protagonists belong to.
As an example of whiteness in Hollywood films I chose Steven Spielberg’s 2001 science-fiction crime story Minority Report, mostly because it presents a very harsh contrast to black film: Black actors in this film serve as nothing more than placeholders and the overall tone of the film is a very white and clinic one. Also, Spielberg can be seen as a typical representative of white Hollywood filmmakers, though his Jewish roots may differentiate him from some others.
The example of ‘black’ film will be a reproduction of a classical blaxploitation movie: The 2000 John Singleton adaptation of Shaft. Surely one could see the original version as a far better example but my main argument for the new version was the rather narrow time scale in which the two films were published. Filmic techniques and styles might be easier to compare if the chronological distance between the two films is not too big. In addition, both the new and the old version make blackness a central aspect.
The main points that I will take into consideration as I go through my analysing progress are architecture, presentation of city life and the presentation of crime fighting. Seemingly, these points have nothing in common but in the course of this essay, I will try to point out how these aspects work together to convey an image of a certain world to the viewer and that this image is also mainly influenced by the protagonists of the films.
2. “For all those who have had enough of the man” - John Singleton’s SHAFT
2.1 The story
John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), the nephew of the John Shaft we know from the original Shaft movie, has joined his uncle in the world of crime fighting, although rather on a different level. As part of the NYPD he has been fighting the bad guys, which consist manly of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, for many years now. Then the evening that changes Shaft’s conception of law and order arrives. A black young guy is beaten to death by Walter Wade Jr., white son of a real estate tycoon, after countering racist offends with pure cleverness. Wade is found innocent by the court because the eye witness can not be found. He breaks out of bail and flees to Switzerland. A few years later he returns to face court being assured of the money and the social might of his father. Shaft turns his back on the police and begins “to take measures in his own hand”, as had his uncle years before, and tries to find the eye witness, a young waitress. Wade, being aware of the situation, hires Peoples Hernandez, a local Puerto Rican drug dealer, to kill the eye witness. Shaft, being the righteous fighter for black rights, finds the young waitress but as Wade is taken to court and is sure to be put into jail, the mother of the young black boy shoots him on the steps of the court. The film ends with dozens of black people standing in front of the court screaming “let her go” as the trial against the mother is about to begin.
2.2. Background information / Links to black movie traditions
Although films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song came before and set ground, it was Shaft and Richard Roundtree as it’s protagonist that gained the most commercial and social recognition of blaxploitation heroes. The idea of the black man taking measures into his own hands is vital to all blaxploitation movies. Each single one features a protagonist that is very sexually active and uses violence as a means to establish law and order or to prevent black rights from being limited. The perception of blaxploitation film became much differentiated throughout white and black audiences. One way of seeing things was that blaxploitation film was the reaction of a suppressed black society that needed to break free from the chains that the white majority had placed upon them and therefore advertised the rise of the black man with the help of violence. On the other hand one could criticise the presentation of black violence and sexuality as it could reinforce the white fears that often lead to racism. The supposed inability to control the hypothetical sexuality and physical potential of the blacks was one of the reasons that lead to a deeply rooted fear of the black man and therefore to racist theories. The idea of miscegenation, the feared mixture of white and black genetic material, is also taken up in many blaxploitation movies, for example in Shaft as he is sexually attractive to both white and black women and sleeps with them.
But the short story of the rise and fall of blaxploitation movies has to be diversely observed. Melvin Van Peeples Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was surely the starting point of the blaxploitation hype. The black film genre that was stagnating since the 1950ies and was mainly dominated by Sidney Poitier as the intellectual black hero against a racist white township (e.g. in “In the Heat of the Night”, 1967) now gained something like a surprising initial start. As the politic discourse changed to a rather aggressive tone and the sixties developed to a decade of militant street riots, Van Peeples film surprisingly reached a wide range of the urban black audience. As Stephan Hoffstedt says in his book “Black Cinema” (1995) the success of Van Peeples low-budget-production demonstrated the financial might of the urban black audience to Hollywood filmmakers (compare: Hoffstedt, Stephan. Black Cinema. 1995: 59.) and therefore convinced them to attempt to reproduce it. They succeeded in reproducing the financial aspect but failed to use the impulse of Van Peeples film to give the black film genre a new start-up. Hoffstedt: “… letztlich wurde blaxploitation jedoch zu einem Sammelbegriff für eine Flut von mehr als zweihundert Filmen in der Nachfolge von Sweetback, deren Struktur und Inhalt immer simpler wurde und schließlich nur noch darauf ausgerichtet war, die latenten Rachephantasien einer frustrierten schwarzen Jugend in den Innenstädten in Szene zu setzen.“ The initial impulse of blaxploitation movies was gone once that Hollywood took over, although some following films gained a similar status to Sweetback such as Superfly or Shaft.
When John Singleton set out to produce the modern Shaft he had to bare witness to two facts. The first one was that his film had to stand in a line with the former mentioned blaxpoitation film traditions. Violence, sexuality and black rights had to be central aspects of his film. In addition, Singleton had to walk a thin line between the initial impulse of Sweetback and Shaft and the commercial follow-ups. In fact, the original Shaft also profited from the success of Sweetback and was rather intended to make a financial success than to reinforce black rights. The frustrated urban black youth was vital to the financial success of Shaft.